One of the more impactful forms of storytelling is in the tales of the hopeless. When a viewer can feel, empathizing with the protagonist(s), that there is no way to escape, to win, or to evade defeat, that is when a story becomes all the more engrossing. It’s what gives The Dark Knight, the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, and the entirety of the FX show, Fargo, such narrative power. Everywhere the leads turn, there is somebody under the thumb of Wilson Fisk or the Joker, or else the leads are being followed by the likes of Lorne Malvo. This cross-section of fear and power is the driving force behind the first filmic iteration of Stephen King’s It, the 1990 TV movie.
The fear in It comes from that which is referred to by the eponymous pronoun; Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The fear-inducing nature of clowns aside, Pennywise is most terrifying because of his power. Teleportation and shape-shifting are the least of it. The clown controls perception and can affect people without others even noticing. A chilling moment comes in the way of the young Beverly, covered in blood, watching her father look around the bathroom, asking her why she screamed. Such carnage paired with carnival mayhem goes unnoticed by everyone around the protagonists.
The town of Derry has a disturbing degree of ignored violence. Children are killed or go missing often, and the furthest extent of feeling this is in a town curfew mentioned once and a policeman asking kids to be careful. The aura in the town is not one of immediate danger. As adults, the main characters point out that their teacher shrugged off the bloody history of the town, as if she didn’t want to know of it.
There is an immense danger in this town. Pennywise can make shower heads come to life, take the form of a kid’s dead dad, create blood balloons, and find any other way to torment the children. There is nobody to tell, no one who will believe them, no person who will even notice. Every bit of psychological horror exacted upon the kids is something they are powerless to stop. Anywhere they turn, they cannot do anything but watch in fear. This is the power of It.
The children are powerless in their own way, aside from their inability to defend themselves against a murderous clown. Bill is weak in speech, suffering from a stutter, and his brother is killed while the former is overpowered by illness, stuck in bed. Ben is overweight and poor, living with family who treat him terribly, apologizing for his own mistreatment. Mike faces racism and Stanley sees anti-Semitism. Beverly is overpowered by her father and abused. The friends form a group called the Losers’ Club, recognizing their own weaknesses as individuals.
As Pennywise torments the children, there is visual emphasis of the power he holds over them. The unnoticed blood and gore is only part of it. While the Losers are looking through a photo album, Pennywise flips the pages, taking away any control they have. He reaches out of the album, a hand stretching from a book towards terrified children. Wherever they go, the kids are being pursued. One shot of terror for Beverly has her cowering as the camera closes in on her, a trick Hitchcock used in The Birds to feel the overwhelming panic of a danger all around.
Though often monster movies suffer from overexposure to the creature featured, It is only improved by the use of Pennywise. Tim Curry brings a wonderful manic energy, playing a normal clown who happens to be incredibly sinister, and then threatening people with murder. A scene where Pennywise jokes “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” is particularly memorable, as he yuks in the background behind Richie’s blood-soaked face. The more he appears to terrify, the more often he shows up, and the more inescapable he is, the better the film is as a result.
A fascinating aspect of alien invasion movies is in their nature of confirmation bias. Humans believe that aliens are from Mars, so it is scientifically determined within the movies that the aliens are from Mars. Incredibly, alien space ships look exactly like flying saucers humans believe aliens fly. These movies are full of characters making assumptions and then immediately being proven right.
It has the same feeling at first. Bill has the sense that the clown is afraid of the children. Richie offers his mother’s silver earrings as a way of killing it. They believe in these as facts, and it feels like a mental leap to make these assumptions. How could they “just know” the strengths of the clown, its weaknesses?
Of note is the scene preceding these moments. Inside a photo album, the figure of Pennywise appears, before he starts moving, dancing, and then running up to the foreground of the picture. The photo changes from sepia to full color and Pennywise spits out, “I’ll kill you all. Haha! I’ll drive you crazy and I’ll kill you all. I’m every nightmare you’ve ever had; I am your worst dream come true. I’m everything you ever were afraid of.” Pennywise is right that he’s a nightmare, but he doesn’t realize the implications of this fact.
This creature, so all-powerful, capable of so much, depends on his victims to defeat them. When the Losers hold hands, stay together, and believe that the monster can’t hurt them, it can’t hurt them. Pennywise tries to terrify them, but at a certain point, all he can do is try. When they believe that silver is a way to stop him — it does just that. This is why later, Pennywise can only torment the now-adults or send somebody else to kill them. His powers, are severely limited.
It is all about feeling powerless. The children are terrorized by feeling like there is nowhere to turn, like this clown will be lurking wherever they go. At home, at school, in the showers, in a book, it is always there. Consequently, the way of defeating the clown is to believe that it is not powerful. A group of individual losers becomes a club of friends. Friends who have power within themselves to stand up to evil.
As great as this development of the film is, it ends up weakening the ending as a result. The final climactic battle, between the adult versions of the Losers’ Club and a giant spider has nothing to do with power. It is a simple wrestling match of sorts. The psychological torment ends with a hologram of Pennywise. The battle is a battle of the mind, and the ending is an ending of physicality. There are deep themes of power running through It, but in its deviation from such storytelling, the film does poorly.
Storytelling which encourages children not to depend on adults is good. At some point, we all have to go out on our own, by our own choice or by the choice of some other force. In It, the force just happens to be a murderous clown. The children feel terrified and overpowered, but they are not. The monster only has the strength they give it, and as long as the children cede no power to the monster, it will have none. When it is up to the children to stand up to evil, their own power comes from the belief that they have it. The monster in the closet is only as scary as they let it be.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Television